If you are looking for fine Italian wine and food, consider the Tuscany region of central Italy. You may find a bargain, and I hope that you’ll have fun on this fact-filled wine education tour.
Tuscany is located on the central western part of Italy on the Tyrrhenian Sea. It gets its name from an Etruscan tribe that settled the area about three thousand years ago. It has belonged to the Romans, the Lombards, and the Franks. More than four hundred years ago under the Medicis, Tuscany became a major European center. It is undoubtedly one of Italy’s top tourist destinations as well as an ideal place for your villa when you hit it big, really big. According to one Seinfeld episode there are no villas to rent in Tuscany, but that was several years ago. On the other hand, time in Tuscany as elsewhere in Italy is measured in centuries. Tuscany’s total population is about 3.5 million.
Florence is the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance and the administrative center of Tuscany. It is one of Italy’s top tourist destinations, whose sites of interest are too numerous to list here. Siena and Pisa are two other major tourist destinations.
Tuscany is a center of industrial production, in particular metallurgy, chemicals, and textiles. Given the region’s importance as an international art center for centuries, don’t be surprised that it is an excellent place to appreciate and purchase fashion, jewelry, leather goods, marble, and other items of beauty. Florence is the home of the house of Gucci.
Tuscany produces a wide variety of cereal, olives, vegetables, and fruit. But not only vegetarians eat well. It is home to cattle, horses, pigs, and poultry. One local specialty is wild boar. On the coast, seafood is abundant.
Tuscany devotes over one hundred fifty thousand acres to grapevines, it ranks 4th among the 20 Italian regions. Its total annual wine production is about 58 million gallons, giving it an 8th place. About 70% of the wine production is red or rosé, leaving 30% for white. The region produces 44 DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine and 7 DOCG white wine. The G in DOCG stands for Garantita, but there is in fact no guarantee that such wines are truly superior. The region produces 9 DOC wines. Tuscany also produces Super Tuscan wines, wines that may not have a prestigious classification but that are known to be outstanding. These wines are arguably the main reason that Italy was forced to revise its wine classification system. Fully 55% of Tuscan wine carries the DOC or DOCG designation. And remember, many of Tuscany’s best wines carry neither designation. Tuscany is home to more than three dozen major and secondary grape varieties, about half white and half red.
Widely grown international white grape varieties include Trebbiano, Malvasia, and Sauvignon Blanc. The best-known strictly Italian white varieties are Vermentino and Vernaccia.
Widely grown international red grape varieties include Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The best-known Italian red variety is Sangiovese, which is grown elsewhere, including California. A strictly Italian variety is Canaiolo.
Before reviewing the Tuscan wine and cheese that we were lucky enough to purchase at a local wine store and a local Italian food store, here are a few suggestions of what to eat with indigenous wines when touring this beautiful region.
Start with Panzanella, Bread and Tomato Salad.
For a second course, eat or share a Bistecca alla Fiorentina, (Texas-sized) Beef Steak.
If you have room, indulge in a Torta Rustica, Cornmeal Cake with Cream.
OUR WINE REVIEW POLICY While we have communicated with well over a thousand Italian wine producers and merchants to help prepare these articles, our policy is clear. All wines that we taste and review are purchased at the full retail price.
Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico 2004 12.8% alcohol about $21
I’ll start by quoting the marketing materials. “…A wine that would complement a veal chop or game birds, expect aromas of cranberry and cherry. On the palate, it should be round and ripe with enough tannin for balance.” As a point of interest, the label included the warning “contains sulphites” in ten languages.
I first tasted this wine with slow-cooked boneless beef ribs and potatoes accompanied by a spicy commercial Turkish salad. The wine was thick, loaded with plum and cherry flavors, and some tobacco. The tannins were moderate. Dessert was a cocoa cake whose label said strudel. The wine went well, its fruit really came out.
I next tasted the Chianti Classico with slow-cooked meat balls, cauliflower and chickpeas in a tomato sauce, and potato wedges. The wine was plumy and powerful, with very pleasant tannins, a little tobacco and a little earth. Just so you know, I’m not usually partial to tannins. The wine was so round that I enjoyed finishing the glass when the food was gone. No dessert this time.
I decided to follow the distributor’s suggestion and grilled a veal chop with a mixture of spices (minced onion, cayenne, and a bit of curry powder), accompanied by grilled eggplant slices with the same spices, and a commercially prepared Turkish salad, based on red pepper and tomato. The wine bounced nicely off the delicious somewhat fat, somewhat rare meat. It didn’t add flavors of its own, but accompanied the food’s flavors excellently. It was powerful, but not overpowering.
As its name indicates, Pecorino Toscano cheese comes from Tuscany, where it has been made from sheep’s milk for thousands of years. The cheese is moderately strong smelling and has a complex nutty flavor. The wine was smooth and round and had a pleasant tinge of tobacco. Just for the record I am not a smoker. In the presence of Asiago cheese from the Trentino-Alto Adige region of northern Italy, the wine became more robust.
I remember when Chianti came in straw-covered bottles. In fact, I remember the bottles more than the wine itself. But times have changed. This Chianti Classico was excellent, quite deserving of its top-of-the-line DOCG classification and well worth the price.
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Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. His wine website is www.theworldwidewine.com .
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